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The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain Hardcover – June 14, 2011
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"What a treat. A charming, engaging and accessible book written by a scientist who knows how to tell a story." - Richard Thaler, author of Nudge
"Very enjoyable, highly original and packed with eye-opening insight, this is a beautifully written book that really brings psychology alive." – Simon Baron-Cohen, author of The Science of Evil
"With rare talent Sharot takes us on an unforgettable tour of the hopes, traps and tricks of our brains…cutting-edge…a must-read.” –David Eagleman, author of Sum and Incognito
“If you read her story, you'll get a better grip on how we function in it. I'm optimistic about that.” –Richard Stengel, Time
“Lively, conversational…A well-told, heartening report from neuroscience’s front lines.” –Kirkus
“Insightful, Oliver Sacks–y first book.” –Village Voice (Summer Book Picks)
“Most readers will turn to the last page not only buoyed by hope but also aware of the sources and benefits of that hope.” –Booklist
“Fascinating.” –Insane Science, NPR
“A book I’d suggest to anyone.. offers evolutionary, neurological, and even slightly philosophical reasons for optimism” –Forbes
“An intelligently written look into why most people take an optimistic view of life… fascinating trip into why we prefer to remain hopeful about our future and ourselves.” –New York Journal of Books
“Fascinating book offers compelling evidence for the neural basis of optimism and what it all means.” –Scientific American Book club
“Once I started reading The Optimism Bias, I could not put it down.”. –Positive Psychology News Daily
“A fascinating yet accessible exploration of how and why our brains construct a positive outlook on life.” –Brain Pickings (7 Essential Books on Optimism)
“Engaging…There are many absorbing stories and facts in this concise and well-written book…you will find yourself reflecting on its contents long after you’ve read the final page.” –makewavesnotnoise.com
About the Author
Tali Sharot’s research on optimism, memory, and emotion has been the subject of features in Newsweek, The Boston Globe, Time, The Wall Street Journal, New Scientist, and The Washington Post, as well as on the BBC. She has a Ph.D. in psychology and neuroscience from New York University and is currently a research fellow at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London. She lives in London.
Top Customer Reviews
Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist by trade, was studying the effects of trauma on memory. Her first pronouncement is that exceptionally emotional events cause us to believe that we have flawlessly accurate recollections of them -- "flash-bulb" memories as they are termed; and they are largely a sham we foist on ourselves.
The Optimism Bias is not a self-help book. It is not "The Power of Positive Thinking". It is not Sun Zu goes to Wall Street, and not pop-psychology. It is a non-technical survey of current concepts in neuroscience. Dr. Sharot does not dumb it down, rather she seats the concepts with everyday examples to give us a solid understanding of how our neural system manifests itself in our everyday thoughts and behavior. People with a scientific/medical/technical background may miss the lack of complete technical discussion. I might have taken one star if I were concerned with only their perspective. But not two stars since the tour and terminology are still solid science that I found informative and helpful. For the general intelligent reading public, I stick with five.
This book will give you knowledge of yourself and those around you to the point of actually using this information to improve your life. Not a series of prescriptions or proscriptions, but a calm and level understanding of how we think and feel and act which can allow you to have more and better control of yourself. Knowledge here is power.
Want to get more comfortable with the hippocampus? Dig right in. How do anti-depressants work? Just what do they do? Come on in and get a clue. Dr. Sharot has good bedside manner when it come to a clear and interesting writing style. She is handy at anticipating our questions as well as where we may be likely to misinterpret, or to wrongly infer.
Dr. Sharot's hypothesis we have evolved this flash-bulb distortion (as part of a much larger proposition) of memory as part of a system we need to imagine the future. Imagining the future is part of our unconscious survival strategy. What a perverse notion, that we need to dupe ourselves into marching on. Remember the old days of warfare when two opposing armies lined up in file three ranks and more deep? That front line was called The Forlorn Hope.
But I will give you a better example of a different sort. I saw a study that looked for attributes or characteristics of women with successful children (read happy, capable and resilient, not big-shots) while pregnant. One of the strongest predictors by far, after you except not taking drugs, is their inclination to imagine their unborn child as a well developing young adult. She could envision her baby to be already sturdy and happy in the world, growing into a good place in the world. On the other hand, children who were cripplingly maladjusted to getting on had in common a mother that was unable to make such a projection into the future. This stuff is clinical, not judgmental, just as Dr. Sharot's approach always is. She is neither moralist nor evangelist. She shows us a few new things ourselves, and about the world we build for ourselves and for each other.
Here is the crux: We distort the past, in part because past and future notions share the same neural highway, but also because we need so many bits of the past to cobble together what we want or need the future to be. This enterprise is executed on grand and minuscule levels. We evolved to meet an uncertain future on the most hopeful terms, not the most effective, accurate or prudent ones.
She gives a good survey of important work done in recent times. She also shows her own research. For example, she conducted an experiment where subjects were asked to imagine a specified event. Dr. Sharot designed the experiment such that the event was innocuous, a haircut or a ride on one of the New York City ferries. Instead of an account of these events, she got fanciful embellishments of the imaginations' work. Mundane was made fantastic.
Dr. Sharot lays a heavy hand on the line. Optimistic bias is a significant contributor to the survival of the species and is "hardwired", in the argot of cognitive scientists, in the brain. Quotidian thought swims in a small sea of unconscious, irrational optimism. Baseline positive people are 50:33 over negative and neutral. She is showing us we are singing the songs from West Side Story, i.e. "Something's Coming" and "Tonight". But we have also seen the end. She shows us all sides to our puzzle. No pretension to completeness, but a reassuring thoroughness she delivers.
Important to all of this exploration is how you know what you think you might know. Here again, Dr, Sharot is putting her back into it. She knows her numbers and likes to keep count of everything. So she counts our events, our incidences of positive bias. She measures how we consistently overrate our own choices and our own precious abilities. Yet she has no agenda to tear anybody down. No blaming, no axes or cross-hairs, her stories are insightful, instructive and rather disarming.
We are terrible at introspection. Plenty of documentation here. But what surprised me was the work done by a bunch of Smarty-Pants Swedes who ran many trials where they handed out pairs of photographs asking the subjects to choose the more attractive. Then they pulled the old switcheroo and handed them back the picture NOT chosen. Whereupon 75% did not notice. They further went on to argue from the formerly rejected photo why this was indeed the attractive one.
Take this voyage within and do it leisurely. See yourself and the rest of us in many new ways. Understand because you want to, and then you can make it work for you.
She proceeds to discuss mental time travel and whether animals can think of a past and a future. Much of the discussion is related to how optimism developped in our brains and reasons why. As the book went on, I found myself starting to skim. It was an involuntary action, but I just could not stay with the author in her writing. Another reviewer said it felt like an article blown up to book length, and I would agree. I feel she has some great points to be made in this book, but the treatment is too long and short on solid information for the length of the book.
Worth reading or skimming once for a few key pieces of information, but I likely won't return to it.
The book gives us many more of those. It is an easy read, a popular essay on questions of psychology, involving philosophy and evolution. I like its way of giving names, like this focusing illusion, or `defensive pessimism' (holding low expectations will protect us from disappointment --- alas, not true), or the title story: `optimism bias', a cognitive malfunction.
The optimism bias stands guard. It is in charge of keeping us healthy. Where would homsap be if we would live according to our deeper insight of futility? Optimism counteracts knowledge of death. Schopenhauer and his ilk are the enemies of mankind's future. Evolution can't handle the depressed other than by sorting them out. Depression is the inability to construct a future. Religion's place in the overall scheme of evolution is reserved in the VIP sector. Optimists live longer!
Homo sapiens' outstanding skill, compared to other species, is mental time travel, the ability to remember and to look and think ahead and make plans for contingencies. Sharot tells us that the ability to do these mental travels is located in specific brain regions. It has been observed, she says, that special brain regions in London taxi drivers shrink when they retire and don't need to keep their navigational knowledge up to speed any more. Makes me wonder if it is safe to start forgetting all the football results that I remember?
Much of the argument in the book is based on practical research, such as using brain images. Luckily I gather that the time has not yet come where a brain scanner can read your thoughts accurately.
Among the less appreciated insights in this book: people who like gardening are apparently happier than people like me. I don't do gardening. Tough luck. She doesn't say anything about cooking. That's another bad habit that I stay away from. I like to consider myself reasonably happy without gardening and cooking, but maybe I confuse `happy' with `lucky'?
Why is optimism like red wine? Obviously, a little of it is good for you, but beware not to overdose!
Same might be said for vinegar, right? I need to thank my acetic zoo pal for this recommendation!